From little things, big things grow

07 July 2021

Ross McGravie

Opportunity knocked for Andrew Hurford in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns. As many busied themselves with baking sourdough or completing jigsaws, Andrew left behind his strict work protocols on most evenings and weekends for the welcome distraction of returning to his roots.

Or more aptly those laid by his grandfather James, who established the family business amid a timber shortage during the Great Depression with his uncanny knack for problem solving.

The one-time carpenter (now Hurford Group director) started restoring a house on the first plantation, near Kyogle in northern New South Wales, his family owned. Better still, he used timber from trees that the family planted – in a timely example of sustainability.

“It had been sitting there a bit derelict on the family property for a while and I’d always been meaning to fix it up. We put a deck and veranda on one side, using timber we grew up on the hill,” Andrew says. “That house was probably built in the 1920s … and it’s still solid. We sanded and polished the old flooring, which was red mahogany, and it just came up as good as new.”

Melbourne Royal Exhibition Hall exterior

The project, which is “90 per cent complete and habitable” except for a “few finishing touches”, reminded Andrew of timber’s enduring appeal.

A huge fan of Jeff Hannah’s craftsmanship, Andrew says he “couldn’t live or work in a synthetic environment” and still enjoys “sitting on a beautiful piece of spotted gum or ironbark decking, looking at timber flooring and the variation in there, or studying the rustic hardwood poles on the veranda at the farm.”

“That’s what I love about timber, beyond the natural beauty and the many ways of working with it,” he says. “This is a solid building material that has all the wonderful qualities that it has, but we can grow this thing from a tiny seedling and can keep doing it forever.

“I think it’s got a lot of the answers to things the human race is going to need as we go forward.”

Melbourne Royal Exhibition Hall interior

Andrew takes great pride in Hurford’s sustainability practices, which he says were “hardwired into the DNA of the business” long before they entered the industry lexicon. “We’ve always been that way … I did get that from my grandparents and my mother and father. Now we’ve got a fourth generation of kids involved in the business and you can’t sustain that if you’re going to cut corners.”

Led now by CEO Bob Engwirda, Hurford’s has evolved from builder to timber manufacturer and distributor, along with its farm forests to supplement supply. It has fostered innovation via collaborations with NSW’s Forestry Corporation, Southern Cross University and Local Land Services, among others. It has even worked with the Department of Primary Industries on protecting koala habitats.

Andrew says supplying spotted gum flooring for Melbourne’s World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Centre rates among company highlights as “so many people get to see it and use it” for decades to come. But he’s equally proud of the company’s engineered flooring products, which use a four-millimetre layer of product on top of lower-grade products, demonstrating “how we make the most of the resource we’ve got.” “Instead of using an inch of hardwood to give you a beautiful floor, you can get five pieces of flooring out of that one piece while still retaining the durability and strength,” he says.

Always looking to the future – like his grandfather – Andrew says growing trees has become his passion as he looks for better and more efficient ways of cultivating amid a changing climate as bushfires, floods and the pandemic’s supply chain uncertainty highlight the finite resources on hand.

Hurfood hardwood timber flooring

“As well as timber producers, we’re also forest growers so … you need to be thinking about species selection, and where you’re establishing new forests for future timber supply. What are these trees going to confront in the next 30 to 50 years?” Andrew says.

“We don’t have all the answers. We’re a small company. We don’t have the budget to tackle all of these things by ourselves. But there’s a lot of good people around us that you can work with and tap into their experience and expertise and learn from them.”

Andrew is heading to New Zealand soon for a carbon sequestration conference to set the framework for cleaner air regulations and a fairer arrangement to reward the long-term planning of growers, sooner rather than later.

“We have to take action. Hope is good, but action is better.”

But that’s only one part of the bigger picture, just as his grandfather discovered almost a century earlier.

“Post COVID, the world has found itself with a shortage of timber again, so we just have to get smarter about how we’re using it. We have a very inventive team and we’ll work our way through it. We just have to learn to do more with less, while we keep growing more for the future.”

Hurford hardwood timber flooring